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Fund Your Veteran-Owned Business through Competitions
by Lee Mills
February 11, 2024
veteran business competition award
A new option to veteran business grants

Transitioning from a military career to entrepreneurship is a journey marked by courage, determination and grit. As veterans embark on this new path, one of the critical challenges they often face is securing the capital needed to turn their business ideas into reality.

While you can use savings, small business loans or veteran business grants to start or grow your business, I recommend applying for every startup competition or small business contest you can find. It will help you hone your message and offer, build confidence, get the word about your idea, and, if all goes well, help you land some of the capital you need

A startup competition, sometimes called a pitch contest, is an exciting way for veterans to raise funds to launch or grow their ventures. As a veteran entrepreneur who has entered and won competitions, I can share firsthand how these events can help you raise capital, gain exposure and propel your entrepreneurial dreams forward.

Understanding the Power of Startup Competitions

Startup competitions are events where entrepreneurs present their business ideas to a panel of judges, which often include investors, industry experts and mentors. These contests provide a platform for veterans to showcase their innovative business concepts, get valuable feedback and compete for funding. By participating in pitch contests, you can connect with potential investors interested in supporting your venture. You also might find customers or discover new ideas for target markets, product or service features or people to join your team.

Identifying the Right Small Business Contests

The following are veteran-focused contests I recommend. Also, watch for opportunities in your local community or region. If an application deadline has passed, consider attending to familiarize yourself with the competition process. 

  1. VetsinTech
  • Event date: October 6, 2023
  • Location: virtual
  • Application deadline: closed for 2023
  • Prize: 1st place $25,000, 2nd place $10,000, 3rd place $5,000
  1. USAA / Bunker Labs Startup Pitch Contest
  • Event date: October 19, 2023
  • Location: Washington, D.C.
  • Application deadline: closed for 2023
  • Prize: 1st place $50,000, 2nd place $25,000, 3rd place $10,000
  1. The Veteran Fund $100,000 Pitch Contest
  • Event date: November 7-10, 2023
  • Location: Las Vegas, NV
  • Application deadline: not yet available
  • Prize: $100,000
  1. VETCON Business Plan Competition
  • Event date: November 28-29, 2023
  • Location: Albany, NY
  • Application deadline: November 21, 2023
  • Prize: 1st place $3,000, 2nd place $2,000, 3rd place $1,000
  1. Veteran Shark Tank
  • Event date: December 4, 2023
  • Location: Philadelphia, PA
  • Application deadline: October 15, 2023
  • Prize: $50,000
  1. Veterans Business Battle
  • Event date: April 18-19, 2024
  • Location: Houston, TX
  • Application deadline: not yet available
  • Prize: $30,000
  1. The FedEx Small Business Grant Contest
  • Location: virtual
  • Event date: Apr/May 2024
  • Application deadline: not yet available
  • Prize: $30,000 each for ten winners (one U.S. veteran)
  1. TFX Capital Annual Veteran Startup Showcase Pitch Competition
  • Event date: Sept/Oct 2024
  • Location: Charlotte, NC
  • Application deadline: not yet available
  • Prize: $50,000

There are other opportunities to pitch your veteran-owned business to investors that don’t necessarily come with a monetary prize but are well worth your time. The education and networking opportunities are invaluable, and the new connections you make at these events could lead to new funding sources for your business. Here are a few of my recommendations for veteran business owners:

  • DAV Patriot Boot Camp
    • October 12-14, 2023
    • Erlanger, KY
    • DAV Patriot Boot Camp alumni have raised $200 million in venture capital. While not exclusively a pitch contest, Patriot Boot Camp offers an intensive program for veteran entrepreneurs that includes pitch practice and investor exposure.
  • The Military Influencer Conference 
    • November 7-10, 2023
    • Las Vegas, NV
    • This military veteran conference (MIC) includes workshops, networking opportunities and the chance to compete to win funding. It usually includes several pitch contests, including The Veteran Fund $100,000 Veteran Pitch Contest. Many veteran-focused venture capital firms attend this conference.  
  • eMerge
    • April 18-19, 2024
    • Miami, FL
    • This large startup tech conference is focused on Miami and Latin America and accepts veteran startups.
  • PenFed Foundation’s Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program (VEIP)
    • Spring and Fall
    • VA and virtual
    • VEIP’s Master’s Program is an accelerator program for veteran and military spouse business founders to help them raise investor funds and scale. There is no charge to join the program. This isn’t a pitch contest, but if you get accepted, you’ll learn how to tell your story, crush your pitches and be much more attractive to investors.
  • Bunker Labs
    • Virtual and in-person events
    • Bunker Labs offers community programs and courses to help veterans and military spouses start and grow successful businesses. You can benefit whether you’re on active duty, recently transitioned or served long ago. They have virtual and in-person communities in nearly 40 U.S. cities.

As you explore these options and others, check each contest's eligibility criteria, application deadlines and prize details. (Unlike veteran business grants, which generally have no strings attached, business competitions may require winners to offer company equity or achieve milestones to receive the full contest award.) Don’t wait until the last minute to apply—many of these pitch contests require applications that can take more time than you think. You’ll also want to leave plenty of time to build and practice your pitch.

Perfecting Your Pitch

Your pitch deck and story should be about you, your business and the opportunity for investors. Focus on the problem your business solves, your solution, target market, revenue model, team and growth potential. Highlight your military experience and how it has uniquely prepared you to overcome challenges and drive your business forward. I highly recommend the book “Get Backed” by Evan Baehr and Evan Loomis to help you prepare your presentation deck.

Crafting a compelling pitch is essential to capture the attention of judges and investors. Here are my top three suggestions:

  • Keep it concise. Your presentation should be engaging and tailored to your audience of investors. Most pitch contest presentations are restricted to two to three minutes per contestant. I strongly encourage you to join a local Toastmasters group to help you hone your presentation skills and build confidence. Investors want confident, driven, ambitious founders with grit who solve big problems that will equate to significant returns for them. Practice timing your pitch, video record it and practice it until you don’t need slides.
  • Be passionate. Passion is contagious, an important trait that can set you and your pitch apart. Try to include your journey, the inspiration behind your business and the impact you aspire to make. Demonstrating your genuine commitment with enthusiasm can resonate deeply with judges and investors, making them more likely to vote for you and invest in your vision.
  • Leverage feedback. Pitch contests provide an invaluable opportunity to ask questions and receive experienced professionals' feedback. Be prepared for constructive criticism, but don’t take anything personally. Use the questions and feedback as a springboard for improvement. Constantly adjust your pitch based on the insights you gather, refining your message and strengthening your overall presentation.

Using Startup Competitions to Build Connections

Pitch contests aren’t just about winning; they’re about exposure and growing your network. You’ll likely meet investors that you’re too early for but could be ideal at your series A or later stage. Whether you win or lose, these contests are about building relationships within the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Connect with fellow veteran business owners, judges, investors and mentors. Networking can lead to future collaborations, partnerships and investment opportunities beyond the contest.

I’m proud to share that I won The Veteran Fund $100,000 Veteran Pitch contest in 2022. This contest helped put my startup on the map and helped me get accepted to the PenFed VEIP spring 2023 cohort. I also recently participated in Bunker Labs’ San Diego community. I met several investors and potential customers and enjoyed the camaraderie I miss most from my four years in the U.S. Navy.

If I can do it, you can do it. Veterans can accomplish anything we set our minds to.

About the author
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Lee Mills
Lee is the CEO and Co-Founder of Pixly, the fastest and easiest way to save time and money documenting and collaborating on projects with photos, videos, tags, data, comments, markups, dashboards and reports. In his spare time, when he is not surfing, he mentors at-risk youth and startups through Connect and Founders Institute.
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